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Rider on the Storm: The Best and Worst of L.A. Buses, Subways and Light Rail

Gregory Bojorquez

With all the bad news out there about our local public transportation, it’s no wonder that so many of us don’t even bother trying to get anyplace by bus or light rail. But after spending several months traveling around the city on trains and buses, I can report that our local transit has improved over the past couple of decades.

Let me count the ways: clean, efficient light rail linking Manhattan Beach to Norwalk (other lines roll into downtown from Sierra Madre and Long Beach); dedicated bus lanes that swoop eastbound, from downtown into the San Gabriel Valley, southbound to San Pedro and, from North Hollywood, westbound into the sunset across the San Fernando Valley. Then there’s the subway barreling from Union Station along the Wilshire Corridor before swerving northwest to North Hollywood, with a finger line extending along Wilshire to Western Avenue. Express and Rapid buses feature limited stops on our most traveled major roadways, allowing them to sweep past the “milk-train” local buses that serve the same routes. A single fare for any MTA bus or train ride runs $1.25. In New York, the equivalent fare is $2.

Compensating for the idiocy of keeping the light-rail Green Line at a mile’s remove from LAX are “Flyaway” buses, leaving every 30 minutes to and from Union Station. Using diamond lanes, these shuttles get you to and from the airport in about 30 minutes, for $3 a ride. (Similar service from JFK and LaGuardia airports into New York’s Grand Central Station run $12 to $15.) Other “Fly Away” destinations include Westwood and Van Nuys.

Recent improvements on the subway and many Rapid bus routes include electronic alerts of when the next train or bus is arriving. They’re usually accurate, but even where they’re off by five or 10 minutes, there’s a perverse comfort in receiving misinformation — as opposed to no information at all.

The bad news is that the connections between the MTA’s major routes will take you efficiently and swiftly in the range of where you need to be, but you can then spend just as much time completing the final leg of your journey. Local-run buses are overcrowded and infrequent, and Department of Transportation shuttle service is paltry. The Eastside and South Los Angeles are woefully underserved, while the Westside, with no train service at all, is so gridlocked that even the Rapid buses crawl along with millions of car drivers, eradicating the very point of limited stops. Poor connections also undo the benefits of the Rapid bus service.

Example: I took the 780 Rapid bus from Hollywood and Vine, hoping to move swiftly through Hollywood and down Fairfax, so I could make the 333 “limited” Venice Boulevard connection to Culver City. The first part of the plan worked well. My Rapid bus easily passed the local 217 local bus that serves the same route. And when I saw that the 217 had its flashers on because it was changing drivers, I thought, “Glad I’m on the 780,” as we swerved around and passed the stopped bus. We made it to Venice Boulevard with amazing efficiency. But then I waited with a small crowd for the 333 — and waited and waited. The local Venice Boulevard 33 pulled up, so jammed with riders that the driver refused to open the front doors to let anybody on, while a few passengers squeezed out the back. Finally the 33 hissed away, leaving the small waiting crowd squinting east for sight of the next local or limited bus. That’s when I spotted the 217 local cross Venice and Fairfax — the same 217 I’d passed about 20 minutes earlier — making it clear that being on the Rapid 780 had served me no purpose whatsoever. This is an allegorical example of where our public transportation lags behind systems in almost every other world city, and why a recent CNN poll cited L.A.’s public transportation as the biggest impediment to tourism here.

Here’s a sampling of some of the best and worst lines our local transport has to offer.

The Connector: Red Line

Provides fast, reliable subway service between Union Station and North Hollywood (30 minutes). The ticket machines can be infuriatingly slow and, on occasion, accept bills only — which brings your base fare up from $1.25 to $2. Ridership has been steadily increasing so that it’s standing-room-only during rush hours, when downtown workers are using the Seventh/Metro, Pershing Square and Civic Center stops. It’s also an ideal way to connect to the Metro-Link commuter trains that all leave from Union Station and serve the valleys, Orange County, Riverside, Moorpark, Lancaster and San Bernardino. L.A. City College students (Vermont Avenue/Santa Monica Boulevard stop) are frequent riders, and in the evenings you’ll find the line used by theater patrons of the Center Theatre Group (Civic Center) and Pantages Theater (Hollywood/Vine). Later at night, you’ll be accompanied by retro punks and hipsters aiming for Hollywood/Highland, and movie patrons headed for the Universal City stop. On a recent Saturday night, coming home to Hollywood from a play in North Hollywood, I found the Red Line crowded even at 11 p.m. The trains run every 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the time, until midnight.

On a Downtown Train: Blue Line

The light-rail line connects with the Red Line subway at the Seventh Street/Metro station (between Figueroa and Hope). It takes about an hour to get to central Long Beach, via Watts (if you want to see the famous Towers, use the 103rd Street Station) and Compton. It leaves every five to 20 minutes, depending on the time of day, and half the trains end at the Willow Station — in the northern perimeter of Long Beach. The seats are hard, and the leg room constricted, but at least you can usually find a seat, and it gets you there with some bridgeway vistas of the warehouses, storage yards and aging suburbs that adjoin our industrial sector. It also serves the Staples Center and L.A. Trade Tech. It gets a little funky late at night, with the occasional on-train fistfight and passengers of all ages and stripes who look like they have nowhere else to be.

Articulated Vision: Orange Line

This is the dedicated bus lane trumpeted by County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavksy — with good reason, if ridership, now approaching capacity, is reason to crow. In fact, now is the time to start replacing those buses with higher-capacity light rail. The route starts directly across Lankershim Boulevard from the Red Line’s North Hollywood terminal (which is a smart connection into Hollywood and downtown), and it has its own two-directional concrete lane through the San Fernando Valley past Pierce College all the way out to the Warner Center. It uses long (“articulated”) buses, which are a cross between a train and a bus. It has its own street signals, like a train, but it also stops at red lights, bringing down its average speech to about 12 miles per hour. Sounds slow, but compare that to crossing the Valley on the 101, especially on a Friday afternoon at 5 p.m.

California Dreaming: 920 Express/720 Rapid

This is the crosstown Wilshire Line, often populated with tourists from England, Japan and Australia aiming for the beach, and UCLA students heading for campus. The 920 runs only during rush hours and makes a mere six stops between Vermont and the beach — which would be ideal if it had its own lane, or the streets weren’t gridlocked on the Westside. The 720 runs to and from East L.A., all through the day and night, every 10 to 15 minutes, with limited stops — not as limited as the 920 Express, but considerably fewer than the local Line 20. It’s the best public-transport service this corridor has ever seen, tempered only by the potholes, which can cause potential harm to internal organs.

The Milk Run: Line 20

Same route as the 720, but it makes “milk-train” stops at every corner. You can start downtown right now, and arrive in Santa Monica in early 2010. Don’t worry, the TV monitor on the bus will let you know who won the Super Bowl.

Speed Thrills: The 450s

Great, fast commuter bus service from downtown along dedicated and diamond lanes to San Pedro, via the Artesia Transit Center. Can run you an extra $1.25 for the freeway/gas toll, over and above the base fare.

No Midnight Express: 780 Rapid/180 and 181 local

The 780 is a good, swift Rapid line that runs from Pasadena City College along Colorado, through Eagle Rock and Glendale (by the Galleria, of course), along Los Feliz to Vermont, and then along Hollywood Boulevard and down Fairfax. The bad news is that it stops running at 8 p.m. if you need to get to Hollywood at night from Old Town Pasadena. I took it from Hollywood to the Pasadena Playhouse, which worked out fine. Returning to Hollywood, however, I waited on Colorado for 45 minutes, until a local 181 chugged up. The backdoor was broken, and the placid driver kept urging exiting passengers out the front. Things got thorny when the driver tried to let on a woman in a wheelchair. The hydraulic ramp didn’t function, and since it was around midnight, the driver couldn’t just leave her there. We all waited a good 15 minutes, until the bus could be angled and the ramp manipulated in order to get the poor woman on to the bus. The driver had the same problem when she got off at Hollywood and Vermont. Equipment ­malfunctions added almost a half-hour to an already long ride.

Scenic Journey: Gold Line

The most scenic light rail in the system. The overland route from Union Station takes you high over Chinatown, across the L.A. River and through hilly passes around Lincoln Heights, up through South Pasadena and Pasadena — eventually rolling along the 210 freeway to Sierra Madre. It runs about every 20 minutes, until midnight, and offers a cleaner and more pleasing alternative access to Pasadena than the 780 or 180 bus lines.

Hell on Wheels: Line 333/33

When Faust, having sold his soul to the Devil, eventually died and was consigned to Hell, his first punishment was riding the 33 along Venice Boulevard. The buses are overcrowded and filthy. I found myself lodged up against somebody’s armpit for the 45-minute lurch between Western and Sepulveda. The drivers have either left this cerebral plane or have understandably bilious tempers, which is why they often, with standing-room-only crowds, neglect to pick up passengers at stops if nobody already riding has pulled the cord to exit. The TV monitor broadcasts news events and weather reports entirely in Spanish, in order for the MTA to claim that it’s serving the poor, Latino community that traverses Venice between downtown and Venice Beach. (The line eventually swerves north into Santa Monica.) In truth, the MTA woefully underserves that community. The 333 limited is a faster bus, and fractionally more pleasant. Just ask Faust.


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